London seems to attract the sort of people who make culture happen. I’ve seen some of the best shows I’ve ever seen in my life in various venues and theatres around town, both big and small.
The tourists flock to the West End to see big musicals and famous American and British actors gracing the stage of places like the Old Vic theatre, but if you’re into fringe theatre, performance art, physical theatre, circus, drag or cabaret, there are better places to look. The list, as you’d expect in a gigantic city like London, is beyond huge. There’s so much stuff to see and so much that’s groundbreakingly good (also, let’s be fair, lots of really weird, crappy stuff, but that’s all part of the fun). So here are 11 places to start you off as you head down the rabbit hole of London’s alternative theatre and performance scene. Things are going to get weird!
1. Royal Vauxhall Tavern
This former Victorian music hall right next to Vauxhall station is now an iconic gay venue where you can watch some of London’s finest drag shows, awesome performance art, unusual cabaret and all kinds of other entertaining things. And in case you’re wondering, no, you don’t have to be LGBTQ to attend.
I’m writing this in December, which is when the UK’s long-established tradition of pantos (or pantomines) is in full swing for the Christmas season. If you want to enjoy this cheesy local quirk in a slightly more adult fashion, then the RVT has its very own panto that’s apparently everything you could hope for and more.
2. Jacksons Lane
This cool little venue in north London offers a chance to see some great circus and physical theatre shows, as well as weird fringe theatre, and lots of stuff for kids. There are also all kinds of performance and circus arts workshops and classes here, in case you’re into that sort of thing.
3. Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club
What’s a working men’s club, you ask? They were started in the 19th century as private social clubs for working class people in the UK. While the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club still functions as such for the local Bethnal Green community, it also doubles as one of London’s most exciting cabaret / burlesque party venues. If you want a night out that involves watching some top quality (and often truly bizarre) variety acts as well as a wild dance party attended by a bunch of very cool people, this is the perfect place to go. Dress to impress.
4. Soho Theatre
The perfect place to catch fringe theatre shows, comedy and cabaret in a sit-down setting (because it’s a theatre, duh). Pretty much everything that shows here is really very good. Lots of (the better) shows on their way to or from the Edinburgh Fringe festival end up here for their London run.
5. Wilton’s Music Hall
This beautiful, historic music hall in East London is worth visiting even just so you can feast your eyes on the lovely space. However, there are also plenty of cool things to see here, from comedy to musicals, cabaret and theatre. The adjoining bar / restaurant serves very nice food.
6. Arcola Theatre
Quality fringe theatre in the heart of the now heavily gentrified Dalston. A good place to watch some hard-hitting contemporary plays, among other things. As an added bonus, the theatre is close to some of London’s best Turkish restaurants, including the Mangal 2, famous for being the favourite (and extremely regular) dinner haunt of famous artists Gilbert & George.
7. The Albany
This lovely space in south London has a genuine community feel and shows everything from small scale physical theatre to spoken word, fringe theatre, musicals and circus / cabaret shows.
8. Camden People’s Theatre
New and innovative theatre and performance, usually about current issues. Expect a lot of social justice related stuff, LGBTQ performance art and other interesting things to do with stuff affecting society nowadays.
9. The Apple Tree
This is actually a super lovely little LGBT bar, but there are occasionally some magical events here including performance art, spoken word, drag, cabaret, etc. I’m putting mostly it here because it’s a really cool place that deserves to be known.
10. Old Red Lion Theatre
It’s a lovely old pub, it’s a little theatre and it shows interesting, current fringe plays right near Angel station.
11. Tonybee Studios
If you’re into strange performance art, check out this East London space used by various artists to showcase everything from poetry to…well, I don’t even know what to call some of this stuff apart from “performance art”. Get ready to open your mind, or have your mind opened, or just be casually (or intensely) weirded out by what’s inside other people’s minds.
Wilton’s Music Hall photo by Maureen Barlin on Flickr. Creative Commons License.